Seven Samurai is a 1954 movie by Akira Kurosawa, that is often held up by critics as the best Japanese movie ever made perhaps even the best movie of all time.
I first saw it when I was an older teenager, growing up in the Eighties, and I’m inclined to agree with them.
Even though it was made as a homage to the Hollywood Western, it had such influence that it was remade by Hollywood as “The Magnificent Seven”.
Yes, it’s in black and white and yes, it is in Japanese – with subtitles.
Now, I know some people who say flat out, “I don’t watch movies with subtitles” but in my opinion, they are sorely missing out.
If you’re one of those people, I beg you to make an exception for Seven Samurai.
Honour And Loyalty:
I have always had a strong sense of justice, alongside the concepts of honour and loyalty.
Perhaps that’s what got me interested in Japan and its culture – and then in this movie.
I started doing Karate when I was about 15, read stuff about Samurai and the code of Bushido, and loved watching poorly dubbed programs like “The Water Margin” and “Monkey”.
I kind of moved on from that phase of my life when I got into my twenties, but Seven Samurai made such an impression on me, that it is still one of my favourite movies.
The plot is simple: a small village is regularly attacked by a group of bandits, who steal all the food. The impoverished farmers become desperate and enlist seven Samurai to help defend the village.
They are outnumbered by the bandits and at a disadvantage, being on foot, while the bandits have horses.
The only way they can succeed is to stick together and train the farmers to fight as best they can before the bandits return…
The Samurai are all “Ronin” – a Samurai who has no master or lord – and would have been considered to be without honour in Feudal Japanese society.
A Mixed Bag Of Characters:
They are a mixed bag, to say the least, but as the story progresses each character wins a special place in your heart.
Among them is:
– the leader, Kambei, who has seen too many battles
– a youngster, who is completely naïve about warfare and looks up to Kambei as a great warrior
– a quiet, stony faced master swordsman, who only cares about improving his technique
– Kikuchiyo, a joker, who has questionable credentials and a mysterious past
Kikuchiyo is played by Toshiro Mifune who does an amazing job of involving the audience.
When you first see him, he is strange, has sudden mood swings and is almost as scary as he is funny.
He frightens the villagers as well, but soon warms to them and eventually becomes one of their staunchest supporters.
He is often used as the comic relief but there is a serious side to his character which comes to a head near the end of the film.
I won’t spoil anything for you, but the sight of him waist deep in a river at a true moment of revelation brings a tear to my eye every time.
I’ll leave you to decide who has real honour among them…
The other side of the story is of course, the villagers, who are undeniably poor.
The only thing they have to pay the Samurai with is what little food they have left.
One of my favourite early scenes is where the villagers have annoyed a potential recruit and their rice has been spilled on the floor.
They sit completely dejected, while one of them slowly picks up the individual grains and puts them carefully back in the bowl, one by one.
To me, this illustrates simply, yet powerfully the full extent of their plight.
It’s always a reminder to me that there are many people who live like that, even today.
However, the villagers are not in this story solely to be pitied and have their fair share of characters that suck you further into the story.
Gisaku is the village elder, who sometimes seems to be the only one with a level head.
Manzo is frightened of everything, even the Samurai. So much so, that he tries to disguise his daughter so they won’t know she’s a girl.
Another villager is a quiet old man who won’t say boo to a goose. This leads to some funny scenes between him and Kikuchiyo.
(Incredibly) Well Made:
Seven Samurai has all the ingredients of a good movie with a great plot and character development, but there is more to it than that.
It’s an epic, running to over 3 1/2 hours from start to finish, in the full ‘cut’.
During that time, Kurosawa manages to bring in the full range of human emotion, from fear, desperation and suspense, to anger and excitement, to joy and laughter, and even romance.
It’s also amazing technically.
In an age where there were virtually no special effects, Kurosawa insisted that a ‘real’ village be constructed instead of filming it on a set.
He also introduced combinations of fast and slow camera work and other multi-camera techniques that are still used today.
In some of the pitched battles towards the end of the movie, you could easily be watching one of the many modern epics that have been spawned over the past few years.
You’ve probably guessed that I like this movie a lot.
Well, if you’ve not seen it what are you waiting for?